Winston Peters came to my home town of Kumeu last weekend. I thought I’d go along to check him out. I’d wondered why people vote NZ First, though a number of good people I know are keen supporters. I wanted to see if the hype was true about his alleged charisma and charm, get to the bottom of those provocative immigration policies, try to get a measure of the man. Our Helensville seat was ‘owned’ by John Key for the last fifteen years, and we rarely get party leaders to our area, so I was hoping for a spectacle, fire and brimstone maybe, the crowd set alight.
New Zealand First ran a slick operation, with friendly and genuine ‘Young NZ First’ supporters smartly dressed in black branded gear, directing traffic and welcoming meeting goers. Inside, there were more friendly supporters in black, so much that I thought I had stumbled on a gathering of Brian Tamaki’s Destiny Church. They stood around like a gentle mafia, seemingly indefatigable in their allegiance and loyalty to the man and his party.
The Kumeu community made a good showing, with the spacious hall quite full. I saw old time locals and new residents all come to see what Winston had to offer. There were Labour and Green supporters that I recognised, maybe just there for some Sunday afternoon entertainment, maybe jaded, looking for a point of difference, something less middle-ground than the current opposition ‘left’.
Winston is touring the country from top to bottom, in a big mobile billboarded bus. Apparently the bus is too big for New Zealand roads, a problem in rural communities and in Auckland traffic, so the main attraction himself was fashionably late. The crowd were entertained by well humoured sound engineers and patient electorate supporters waiting for the man. While we waited and waited, strangers talked to each other and passed the time of day.
One woman we got talking to firmly believed the crime in society today is because current youth know no respect and have no discipline. She was outspoken with support for being able to hit children. She reckons it does kids good to have them living in fear of violence. “It never did us any harm”. She used a leather strop on her own kids and thinks people now should be able to do the same. She thought NZ First might repeal the ‘anti smacking’ law, though in fact they suggest a referendum on the matter. She was ‘tough on crime and punishment’ and thought we should lock more people up. She didn’t realise we already have one of the highest per capita incarceration rates in the world. She wanted more money from the government to support her retirement, but condemned ‘bludgers and intergenerational unemployment’, with strong racial overtones. She did mention that her own son had been in trouble with the police, and in her opinion, treated in an arbitrary, racist and harsh way, though again I pointed out, that’s what being hard on crime and punishment looks like too.
Conversations like that are like political anthropology, and I wondered, had I met a ‘typical NZ First voter’? Or was she here just to check out Winston too? Was she a swing voter, a jaded National Party voter even? Was she like many of us, with predisposed political values, looking for someone framing the right questions and providing the answers we want to hear. Are we looking for resonance sometimes in the strangest, most cynical of places.
Winston’s entrance itself was suitably staged and dramatic. In a show of political theatre that’s common to all political parties, the leader was welcomed with standing applause. I heard someone murmur, like upon the coming of a king, ‘the silver fox’. It wasn’t quite a cult of personality on show in the Kumeu Hall, but a modest construction of it. All self-presence and cool poise, Winston’s first charm offensive was to smile at the audience.
He fumbled the announcement of the three local woman candidates who include Tracey Martin, party stalwart, current MP and Rodney candidate, Anne Degia-Pala, former Labour candidate and now standing for Kelston, and the Helensville candidate Helen Peterson. I know Tracey and Anne as straight up, hard working women, and they may all be great candidates, but Winston’s introduction was underwhelming. Shane Jones didn’t attend the meeting but he cast a shadowy, slightly noxious pall.
Winston soon hit his stride with fervent support for local causes. He spoke to the issues of the area with his pro-rail policies (trains to Huapai, rail freight to Marsden Point and getting the trucks off the roads). He rightly criticised the government’s Special Housing Areas in Kumeu which are bringing thousands of new houses and cars but little infrastructural improvement. At times the rhetoric got the better of him “I bet you’ve never even been asked what you want”. This, despite the very good engagement from the Rodney Local Board on many issues, most recently in its draft Local Board Plan on which submissions closed on Friday. It’s not true that people have never been asked. But it makes good political sense to appeal to peoples’ feeling of general disenfranchise. Hyperbole and fomented sense of injustice are good politics too.
Winston’s speech was a journey through New Zealand’s glorious and inglorious past. The ghosts and spirit of Seddon, Nash and Holyoake were conjured up. You could almost feel them there. But the darker presence of Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson were the devils in the room. There were stories of victims and villains, heroes (Winston himself even), battles between good and evil. New Zealand’s history was laid out like an epic battle, that still goes on. It was like a legend from a Kiwi Game of Thrones. And in this story, Winston is the knight that will ride on in intercession and save the day.
His speech covered predictable, but genuinely worrying touch points in New Zealand contemporary society. In a globalised world, the capture of critical export markets by overseas interests, for example. He singled out the agricultural sector where Synlait and other Chinese companies, have cornered the whole meat and dairy supply chain including ‘our’ exports of infant milk powder formula (to China). We want them to buy our milk and meat, but we don’t want them to make their own, here. It’s hard to discern who is the parasite when we want access to overseas markets at the cost of our environment, but don’t want them investing here directly. We want our cake, and the Chinese to eat it too, and the Chinese want our cake and to eat it too. Though some of the ironic subtleties of exports and market capture were lost on the audience.
Winston talked about the injustice of student loans and the barriers of student fees. In the best line of the show, he said there are students leaving university looking for jobs, owing more than their parents who have one. He talked about poverty, inequality, New Zealand’s long working hours relative to others in the world, our low productivity rates, the absence of added value to our primary production exports. Missing critical factors like geography and political culture, he imagined New Zealand could become another Singapore or Taiwan. He reflected on the underinvestment in tourism infrastructure.
He raised cheers from the audience speaking against the TPPA. He appealed to our sense of national identity, what it is to be a New Zealander, what New Zealand is and what we want it to be.
He roused the audience when he talked about immigration, suggesting people be allowed to come here based only on genuine need, not race or wealth. New Zealand First he said, would not accept ‘economic refugees’. But at the same time he said if we can’t fix this country, he advises people to emigrate and live somewhere else – assumedly as economic refugees.
His speech was a mixture of firm policy proposals and nostalgic interludes. A showman, he’d occasionally flash that full-face smile, or make a joke. But he also reverted to racist stereotypes, making humour about his Scottish and Maori heritage. Not PC at all, but you can bet the audience didn’t care. And when he said he supported ‘one law for all’, whatever your race or wealth, you can bet the audience thought he meant that would be a white law, and that they’d avail themselves of the best law their money could buy if they ever needed to.
I didn’t come away converted into a New Zealand First voter. Though I did observe that at least some in the audience projected their own meaning onto his rhetoric and convinced themselves he and they were right. Winston accurately reflected the problems of our society, they’re common knowledge, but he didn’t have bold answers. He didn’t promise radical reform or a return to nationalisation or fundamental change to address inequality or injustice. His problem definition was sound, but he didn’t propose a fundamental alternative.
He took an unsophisticated approach to nationalism in an interdependent and globalised world. He was nostalgic rather than progressive. I found him slightly dangerous in his racism and how it incited public support. He was Trumpesque in his self-portrait of a man persecuted and misrepresented by the media. In the end, he’s a General in the Long Parade. Or to mix metaphors, he’s been in the game so long, he knows every card in the pack. On the night though, I felt the myth was bigger than the man. I’m not sure if I met any ‘typical NZ First voters’ there, but I went home worried about race relations in New Zealand. There was no revolution in the Kumeu Hall that night, but there was a slightly sinister smouldering.